Saturday, February 23, 2013

Learning to Walk the Talk

A man had two sons; and coming to the first, he said, "Son, go work today in my vineyard." He answered, "I will, sir," but went not. And coming to the second, he said the same. And he answering, said, "I will not;" but afterwards repenting, he went. Which of the two performed the father's will? They say, "The latter."            

-Matthew 21:28-31, Emphatic Diaglott

This passage from Matthew is one of the lesser-known of Jesus' ministry. This may be due, in part, to the fact that it is shorter than the majority of Jesus' parables. While less known and shorter, however, it is no less meaningful.

In this parable, Jesus paints the picture of two sons who react in opposing ways to their father's request. The first son states that he will do what his father requests but does not keep his word, while the second initially refuses and then changes his mind. Jesus asks, "Which of the two performed the father's will?" The correct answer, as indicated in the text, is the son who actually does his father's will in spite of initially saying he wouldn't.

How often do you say "no" to God when initially confronted with His will? Each and every one of us can identify with one of the two brothers in this parable with nearly every major decision in our lives. We tend to either say "yes" but not act upon our word, or say "no" and eventually do what is right.

We've all heard the slogan, "You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?" Unlike the majority of Christendom's mantras, this one is actually valid. In His parable of the two sons, Jesus depicts one son who merely says (talks), while another actually does (walks). The son who "walks" is given credit as the one who does his father's will, in spite of his initial refusal.

This parable teaches us two important lessons. First: we do no not have to say "yes" from the outset to do God's will. What's important is that we eventually do it! Second: our actions are more important than our words. What we actually do is more meaningful than what we merely say we will do.

Throughout my life, I have, at times, said that I would do certain things and have delayed doing them or, even, never done them. In each instance where I have neglected to act, the results have not been favorable. On the other hand, I have occasionally refused to act at first but have decided to act at a later date. In those cases, the results have been favorable.

In Jesus' story, the son who said "yes" would have been viewed more favorably by his father for his initial obedience. Without hesitation, he agreed to do what his father asked. On the contrary, the other son whose heart seemed, at first, to be rebellious, would have been viewed less favorably by his father. When all was said and done and the father knew what each son had done, he would have viewed each son in an opposite light. The one son's words mean nothing when he doesn't act; the other son's eventual action means everything in spite of his negative words.

I meet many people who struggle with doing, at first, what they know to be right. These people allow their fears to prevent them from being unquestionably obedient to God. This makes sense, of course, given the fact that a life of faith is filled with trial and suffering which nobody welcomes with open arms. In Jesus' story about the two sons, neither son wanted to work in the father's vineyard; neither welcomed the idea of manual labor in the hot sun. Their willingness to work or not work was dependent on their desire to obey their father and trust in his judgment. The same can be said of us. When confronted with God's will in our personal lives, we will rarely want to do it. It will seem in nearly every case to be the harder road. Faithfulness, then, demands trust in God's promises which leads us to obey.

Jesus taught this story to demonstrate to the self-righteous Pharisees that it was not enough for them to merely say "yes" to God. Their words made them appear obedient, but their actions proved that they were disobedient. No doubt, this hypocritical paradigm is every bit as common among the religious elite today.

In Jesus' example of the two sons, neither son is entirely in the right; neither is completely mature. While the righteous son does eventually do his father's will, his initial response was not what it should have been. Rather than say "no" and eventually do his father's will, he should have said "yes" and immediately done it. The more we mature in our faith, the more we will say "yes" like the one son and do as God instructs like the other. We should strive to both say and do what is right.

Ask yourself which son you tend to align with. Do you say "yes" to God but never act accordingly, or do you say "no" and eventually overcome your fears? If your actions don't line up with your words, understand that it is not enough to merely say "yes." Your words are meaningless when they are not supported with action. On the other hand, if you tend to be defiant out of fear but eventually do what is right, make a commitment to be bold in your faith. Recognize that while following God may mean more trial at first, it means more blessing in the long run. Let your words and your deeds demonstrate a life of faithful obedience. Let your "walk" always match your "talk."

© 2013 by Stephen Hill

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The ABSOLUTE Sovereignty of God

"Now at [Christ's] already drawing near to the descent of the mount of Olives, the entire multitude of the disciples begins rejoicing, praising God with a loud voice concerning all the powerful deeds which they perceived, saying, 'Blessed be the King coming in the name of the Lord! In heaven peace, and glory among the highest!' And some of the Pharisees from the throng say to Him, 'Teacher, rebuke your disciples!' And answering, He said to them, 'I am saying to you that, if ever these will be silent, the stones will be crying.'"                        
- Luke 19:37-40

For me, this passage in Luke is one of the most moving in all of Scripture. Imagine Jesus walking amidst a quiet crowd and the inanimate stones on the ground suddenly coming to life, crying out in praise! Imagine being one of the Pharisees He addressed with such a humbling, powerful claim.

More than anything, this passage serves to prove the absolute sovereignty of God. It is important that we include "absolute" or a similarly all-encompassing term when we describe God's sovereignty because, unlike the sovereignty of earthly rulers, God's sovereignty is not limited in any way. He is in complete control over everything in His creation, no matter how seemingly insignificant.

Nearly all professing Christians uphold God's sovereignty on the surface; but dig beneath the surface and you will soon discover many underlying layers which prove that they really view God as anything but sovereign. The God of Christendom is one of great power but shocking inability. He has the desire and power to save all humanity, but man's authority overpowers His will. He intends for the world to be perfect, but man's continual failure forces Him to, instead, spend all of His time putting out fires. In short, the God of Christendom is not the RulER of men; He is the RulED of men.

The greatest assault on the sovereignty of God is the false doctrine of man's free will. In order for man's will to be "free," God must relinquish His authority. Many make the claim that God sovereignly chooses to give man free will. In this way, God appears to retain His control when He has actually given it up. Few claims defy logic as much as this one.

"Sovereign" is a title which is upheld by a set of specific qualities. When the qualities that define the title are absent, the title is no longer valid. Thus, for God to be called "sovereign," He must be sovereign! He cannot give up the characteristics that define His title and still retain the title. According to the doctrine of man's free will, it is man, not God, who is - by definition - sovereign.

Fortunately, Christendom's assault on God's sovereignty is, itself, under God's sovereign control. God has planned man's ignorance and every other wicked occurrence (Is. 45:7) in order to fulfill His purpose. He "locks up all together in stubbornness, that He should be merciful to all" (Rom. 11:32). Man's failure was not a surprise to God - it was planned by Him! Every moment of every life has been penned before it's begun by the Great Author Who has our every hair numbered (Ma. 10:30). No particle of dust, gust of wind, blade of grass or grain of sand moves along its course apart from the Almighty Creator's command. The sun, moon and stars radiate their light and heat at their Maker's direction. All things - great or small, vast or microscopic - are created, sustained and directed at every second by the hand of Almighty God.

It is impossible for us in our current mortal state to come even close to grasping the awesomeness of God. We can hardly do two things at once, let alone control every atom in existence! God spoke creation into existence. (Please read the prior sentence again.) Questioning God's power is entirely out of the question. 

Because of man's inability to fathom the level of God's control, many view Him as more of a general manager Who controls the "big" things but doesn't bother with the "small" things. I recently had lunch with a former coworker who is on the board for a seminary in Ohio, and we discussed the sovereignty of God during our time together. He was quite taken aback by my claim that God manages even the most seemingly insignificant details of creation, and in response he said, "Well, I believe God controls the big things but not every minor detail. For example, I believe that He orchestrated us both coming to work for the same company, but not that He orchestrated us having lunch together today."

This attitude toward God's sovereignty is, without a doubt, the norm. Yet, where do we draw the line? Is it any easier for God to manage the trillions of "big" things in life than the big and small? If any of the "small" things that are not under God's control happen to cause a problem, what is the result? Clearly, if God is sovereign over all creation, there is nothing left to chance and nothing He regards as unimportant.

Proverbs 16:33 says, "The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord." The casting of lots was an ancient custom for randomly choosing the winner of a prize. We see the casting of lots several times in Scripture, including among the Roman soldiers at Christ's crucifixion and when the disciples chose Matthias to replace Judas. Small bits of stone, wood or other materials (the lots) were thrown (cast) into a garment (lap), and each lot was assigned to one person. The one whose lot fell out first won the prize. 

No doubt, most people view this type of activity as entirely random (one of the "small" things God doesn't bother managing); but this passage in Proverbs informs us that what's random to us isn't random at all to God. The decision of the lot - its direction - is ordained by God. 

The more we come into a realization of God's sovereignty, the more humble and at peace we become. When we see dust particles shimmering in a beam of light and realize that each of their courses is plotted by God, we are able to do nothing but fall to our knees in awe. When we recognize that every action and event is not only allowed by God but commanded by Him, we can rest assured, knowing that nothing is left to chance and that all will turn out just as it should. Most importantly, when we realize that it is God's will, not ours, that is free, we can experience the joy that comes from knowing that our Father sent His Son to save all without giving anyone the "freedom" to reject Him.

© 2013 by Stephen Hill